Afghan women raise concerns about inclusion in new government after election

Women voters comprised 31 per cent of the total turnout in September’s election, and now they want more representation

An Afghan burqa clad woman buys vegetable at a market in Kabul on December 9, 2019. / AFP / NOORULLAH SHIRZADA
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The much-delayed results of Afghanistan’s presidential election, held in September, were announced on Sunday, with the two leading candidates already heading into political dispute.

But more importantly for women in Afghanistan are their concerns about the fair and inclusive participation of women in the new government, one that is likely to enter into prospective negotiations with the Taliban.

According to data shared by the Independent Election Commission on Sunday, women voters comprised 31 per cent of the total voter turnout in the September election. This figure is dismally low compared to 2014 presidential election where women voter turnout was 36 per cent and 38 per cent, in both rounds respectively.

While the issue of security was partially responsible for the low turnout among women, many also believe the biometric photograph requirement, an unwelcome move for many conservative women who cover their faces, may have prevented them from casting their ballot.

Yet, many Afghan women’s rights activists see this as an opportunity for President Ashraf Ghani, who secured a second term as per the results, to involve more women in his Cabinet.

“At least 31 per cent of the government belongs to women; it means that 31 per cent of women risked their lives and voted. They did so based on the promises the candidates made during their campaign to empower them,” Samira Hamidi, regional campaigner with Amnesty International and a prominent Afghan activist, said.

“The representation of women at the provincial level is very weak. There are hardly any women present in remote provinces like Kandahar, and even then they are not in leadership and decision making roles,” she said, adding that the inclusion of women in the Afghan capital alone is not enough.

This concern is amplified when put into the context of prospective peace negotiations with the Taliban. For many Afghan women, the years of the Taliban regime evoke terrifying memories of gender suppression and loss of rights. "This is not only a country for men; this is also our country," Balqis Ehsan, a 22-year-old activist in Kabul, told The National.

“Afghan women make up for half of the population and I believe should have half of the representation in the government and be able to play a role in all aspects of governance, including any negotiations of national interest,” she said, referring to the Afghan government’s initiative to engage with the Taliban.

“More women need to be in the government as policy and law makers because the men don’t know what violence the women go through everyday and how marginalised they have become. Women are the first and most affected category by war, and with future talks with Taliban, it is more important than ever before that more women be in the government,” Ms Ehsan said.

“If we don’t talk to Taliban ourselves, the men will not be able to talk for us. Even with the best intentions, they cannot represent us with as much pressure as Afghan women would.”

While there has been a promising growth since the fall of Taliban regime in 2001, women’s participation in the Afghan government remains low. According to Observer Research Foundation, only 22 per cent of women have decision-making roles in the government.

“As compared to the period of Hamid Karzai’s presidency, the number of women has only increased in Kabul at some ministerial and embassy levels. But it is unfair to say it is enough,” Ms Hamidi added.

“Only a few women have been promoted from one position to another without much performance and accountability. This action itself has blocked opportunities for other women who are equally competent,” she said, urging the new government to “appoint vocal women and let them challenge the patriarchy”.

Ms Hamidi advises the re-elected president to focus on increased appointments of women based on their qualifications and competence.

“The government must stop politicising inclusion, participation and appointment of women. The National Unity Government failed to address issues of  participation based on ethnicity and political affiliation. But here’s an opportunity for the government to give opportunity to the many Afghan women with expertise and knowledge,” she said.

“None or reduced role of women in Afghanistan will mean that half the country is paralysed,” Ms Ehsan said, referring to an old Afghan adage: “A bird without a wing cannot fly.”